The 100+ Most Controversial
Films of All-Time

Silents-1930s


The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All-Time
Film Title/Year, Director
Screenshots

The Kiss (1896) (aka The May Irwin Kiss, The Rice-Irwin Kiss and The Widow Jones)
D. William Heise for Thomas Edison

When Broadway sensations May Irwin and John Rice's notorious lip lock was immortalized on film, people were shocked!

This most popular short film (an Edison Vitascope film made in Edison's Black Maria studio) was thought to be scandalizing. It was the first filming of a couple's kiss that was recreated from the two well-known stage actors' (May Irwin and John Rice) performance in the hit Broadway play The Widow Jones. The Edison catalogue advertised it thus: "They get ready to kiss, begin to kiss, and kiss and kiss and kiss in a way that brings down the house every time."

Many disapproved and considered it inappropriate to view two physically-unattractive people magnified on the screen during an extended kiss. As one contemporary critic wrote: "The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other's lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting."


The Birth Of A Nation (1915)
D. D. W. Griffith

Even in 1915, D.W. Griffith's Civil War epic caused a stir for its stereotypical depiction of African-Americans.

This groundbreaking, landmark American film masterpiece about two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods was also extremely controversial and explicitly racist. It was based on former North Carolina Baptist minister Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.'s anti-black, 1905 bigoted play, The Clansman, the second volume in a trilogy.

Its release set up a major censorship battle over its extremist depiction of African Americans, although Griffith naively claimed that he wasn't racist at the time. Unbelievably, the film is still used today as a recruitment piece for Klan membership - and in fact, the organization experienced a revival and membership peak in the decade immediately following its initial release. And the film stirred new controversy when it was voted into the National Film Registry in 1993, and when it was voted one of the "Top 100 American Films" (at # 44) by the American Film Institute in 1998.

The subject matter of the film caused immediate criticism by the newly-created National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for its racist and "vicious" portrayal of blacks, its proclamation of miscegenation, its pro-Klan stance, and its endorsement of enslavement. As a result, two scenes were cut (a love scene between Reconstructionist Senator and his mulatto mistress, and a fight scene).

In the scenes that remained, one recreated the first historic session of the legislature during Reconstruction, in which freed negro legislators were luridly and angrily portrayed as mocking the ideals of the Old South and shown as power-crazy, shiftless, lazy, idiotic, sitting shoeless (sprawled with bare feet upon their desks) and drinking in their legislature seats. In another, mulatto leader Silas Lynch (George Siegmann), lusting for power and miscegenation, attempted to force marriage upon Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) - by force if necessary. During the most famous sequence in the film, excitement was heightened by shots of the Klan alternating with shots of the endangered Elsie - the film exhibited masterful parallel editing. Along a country road, the Klansman rode to their appointed mission - to first rescue Elsie, and then to rescue the entire Cameron family along with one of the Stoneman boys. In a diagonally-angled shot, a long line of KKK riders came into view from the distance.

The film was thoroughly renounced as "the meanest vilification of the Negro race" and for its depiction of blacks as childlike, conniving, and sexually animalistic. Riots broke out in major cities (Boston, Philadelphia, among others), and it was denied release in many other places (Chicago, Ohio, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Minneapolis, eight states in total). Subsequent lawsuits and picketing tailed the film for years when it was re-released (in 1924, 1931, and 1938). Ironically, although the film was advertised as authentic and accurate, the film's major black roles in the film -- including the Senator's mulatto mistress, the mulatto politican brought to power in the South, and faithful freed slaves -- were stereotypically played and filled by white actors - in blackface. [The real blacks in the film only played in minor roles.]




All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
D. Lewis Milestone

The scars of WWI were still fresh when this Oscar-winning anti-war movie drew fire for portraying young German soldiers in a sympathetic light.

The Best Picture winning film was the first major anti-war film of the sound era, faithfully based upon the timeless, best-selling 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque (who had experienced the war first-hand as a young German soldier). The film was made only a dozen years following the end of the Great War, and the memories of the war were still fresh. It was advertised with the brooding face of one of the young German recruits sent into World War I.

It was a critical and financial success, and probably the greatest of pacifist, anti-war films - the grainy black and white film is still not dated and the film hasn't lost its initial impact. The episodic film is still one of the few early sound films that modern audiences watch. However, it was criticized as being propagandistic and anti-militaristic. For its perceived anti-German message, it was denounced by the Nazi government in Berlin of the 30s and subsequently banned.

The film was told in a logical, chronological fashion, and divided into four distinct parts: (1) the pre-war education of schoolboys, and the enlistment of the young German recruits, (2) the soldiers' arrival at the front of World War I, (3) the experiences of the cruelties and horrors of war in trench warfare, (4) the hero's homecoming, return to the front, and ultimate death. The film included a series of vignettes and scenes that portrayed the senselessness and futility of war from the sympathetic point of view of the young German soldiers in the trenches in the Great War who found no glory on the battlefield, meeting only death and disillusionment.

[Note: Five years earlier, King Vidor's WWI epic The Big Parade (1925) also depicted brutal scenes of US soldiers gunned down by snipers, and the loss of the main character's leg when hit by German mortar fire.]




Freaks (1932)
D. Tod Browning

Though its sympathies were with the sideshow performers, this circus drama was criticized for casting real-life "human oddities."

This MGM horror production starred real-life circus side-show performers (a cornucopia of 'human oddities', including Siamese twins Daisy and Violet, Prince Randian - the "Living Torso", Johnny the 'half-boy', the armless girl, the bearded lady, and three 'pinheads' or microcephalics). It was an out-of-the-ordinary picture not easily forgotten, causing both revulsion and fascination.

In the film's terrorizing and shocking climax, strong man Hercules (Henry Victor) and aerialist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) were both pursued in parallel by the grotesque 'freaks' with knives during a stormy night, crawling through mud in vengeful pursuit of their victims. The film was released officially (five months after disastrous preview showings) and found to be exploitative, abhorrent and "loathsome" with "unwholesome shockery," although it also portrayed the 'abnormal and the unwanted' as resilient and adaptable human beings with complete compassion and understanding. Overall, it made audiences uncomfortable and engendered fright, uneasiness and animosity.

After initial preview screenings, MGM ordered Browning to remove the alarming film's most "offensive" segments (approximately 26 minutes), including the original closing scene of an emasculated Hercules singing falsetto (after castration) in "Tetrallini's Freaks and Music Hall". And a final epilogue was tacked on with a 'happy ending' to lessen the shock of the film's original ending -- the sight of Cleopatra ("the peacock of the air") turned into a legless human chicken with one eye blinded. However, the changes in the film did not improve the film's box-office business and it was a major financial failure. Tod Browning's career, which was booming after directing Dracula (1931), was destroyed.

MGM pulled the film from distribution a month after its release, and in 1947, exhibition rights were sold to exploitation filmmaker/distributor Dwain Esper for the next 25 years. It was toured for an adults-only roadshow with alternative titles (i.e., Forbidden Love, The Monster Show, and Nature's Mistakes), exploitative taglines, such as: "Do Siamese Twins Make Love?" and "Can a Full Grown Woman Truly Love a Midget?" The film was banned outright in England for 31 years (until the early 1960s).



Scarface (1932) (aka Scarface: The Shame of the Nation)
D. Howard Hawks

Howard Hawks' classic was banned in several states despite pre-release changes designed to counter claims that it glorified gangsters.

Before this film, pre-Code gangster films Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931) disturbed audiences. Then, one of the boldest, most potent, raw and violently-brutal gangster-crime films ever made was released by United Artists. This sensational production chronicled the predictable but tragic rise and fall of a notorious gangster figure.

Although it was inspired by the exploits of Chicago's Depression-Era underworld vice lord/gangster Alfonso Capone (nicknamed "Scarface"), he bore little resemblance to the finished film. [Note: It also formed the basis for director Brian De Palma's remake Scarface (1983) with Al Pacino as the scar-faced title character - who was redefined as an exile from Castro's Cuba to Florida in the early 1980s.]

The controversial film was in the planning stages in 1930 - to be produced by versatile co-producer/director Howard Hawks and co-producer Howard Hughes. The screenplay for the violent, action-packed, visually expressionistic film was written in eleven days by Chicago native Ben Hecht using his Chicago newspaper experiences. A working script was readied by January 1931, and after about three months of filming, it was completed later in the year. Although the film was scheduled for release in January 1932, its opening was delayed for a few more months due to Hawks' and Hughes' continuing squabbles with industry censors over its sensationalism and glorification of the gangster menace, and issues regarding the film's retitling.

To give the violent, tragi-comedy film respectability, to de-glamorize the folk-hero nature of the gangster, and to appease the forces of censorship, a number of restrictions or changes were imposed before the film could be released with the MPAA seal of approval. For example, an added sub-title was required [its original title was simply Scarface, and the first suggested retitle was The Menace] to illustrate that the film was not a glorification, but an indictment of gangsterism, and an apologetic, moral statement was tacked to the beginning of the film. One of the major changes was in the ending - an alternative, moralistic, sermonizing (and emasculated) second ending (substituted for a shootout) was created to condemn the gangster as cowardly and show his sentencing and retributory punishment (hanging) by an effective justice system.

The film was heralded as an example of the kind of protection the Hollywood Production Code of Ethics could provide to the movie-going public when implemented in 1934. Due to squabbles over the film's release and the hue and cry over its depiction of the world of gangsterism, the film ultimately didn't do well at the box office. It was banned in several states, versions varied from state to state (due to varying boards of censors) and showings were delayed over a year in Chicago. Foreign sales were also limited, and Nazi Germany permanently prohibited the film's showing. After Hughes withdrew it from circulation, it was rarely seen in the United States for almost fifty years, and wasn't widely available until it was reissued by Universal Studios in 1979.

[Note: Brian DePalma's remake with Al Pacino, Scarface (1983), was also vilified for its violent chain-saw sequence.]



Ecstasy (1933, Czech.) (aka Exstase)
D. Gustav Machaty

Americans were shocked by the nudity and sexual frankness of this Czech drama about an unhappy wife searching for fulfillment.

This early, scandalous Czechoslovakian foreign erotic drama was once notorious, earth-shattering, and scandalous. It was notable as being the first theatrically-released film in which the sex act (sexual intercourse) was depicted. It was unusual at its time for depicting female sexual pleasure during orgasm (simulated).

It told the story of a sexually-frustrated child-bride named Eva (Vienna-born 20 year-old Hedwig Kiesler, or later known as Hedy Lamarr in her fifth film) who had married a middle-aged, impotent Emil (Zvonimir Rogoz), and fled in dismay to her widowed father's estate where she was close to nature.

It was censored for its two shocking scenes - in a naturalistic locale reminiscent of the Garden of Eden: a nude swim and naked forest romp in sun-lit woods to pursue her horse Loni (which had run off with her clothes), and an adulterous love-making scene (with an obvious expression of sexual awakening, fulfillment and orgasmic pleasure on her face in a close-up) in a cottage during a rainstorm with a handsome young engineer/surveyor named Adam (Aribert Mog), who had earlier retrieved her horse and clothes.

The foreign import was blocked in 1935 by US Customs from entering the US for its obscenity, marking the first instance of customs laws prohibiting a film from entering the US. The U.S. Treasury Department upheld a Commissioner of Customs decision to prohibit the import, although it was later imported in a censored version. Hitler banned the film, and Pope Pius XII denounced it.





Triumph Of The Will (1935, Ger.)
D. Leni Riefenstahl

Often called the most powerful propaganda movie of all time, Leni Riefenstahl's gorgeous documentary glorified Nazi ideals and iconography.

Nazi Fuhrer leader Adolf Hitler commissioned dancer/actress-turned filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to make this notorious documentary to record and celebrate the sixth Nazi Reich Party Congress held in September 1934 in Nuremberg. This spectacular propagandistic film glorified and praised the might of the unjust and evil Nazi regime and state with masterful images, rapid cuts, a Wagnerian score, and ingenious camera angles and compositions.

This infamous, extravagant two-hour film is still considered the most powerful propaganda film ever made, with grandiose opening shots of Messianic Hitler's arrival by plane, his heroic entrance and adulation by saluting ("Sieg Heil") multitudes and uniformed party members and soldiers (and Hitler Youth), and his charismatic exalted character during rousing speeches. Director Riefenstahl was imprisoned by the Allies for four years after the war, although she continued to protest by insisting that her work was purely historical and an example of cinema verite, rather than the repellent work which it was criticized and accused of being.

Protests greeted Riefenstahl at a 1974 Telluride Film Festival tribute, and the Anti-Defamation League decried a 1975 screening in Atlanta as ''morally insensitive.'' Riefenstahl herself never shook her Nazi-tainted past, and repeatedly claimed the film was more imagery than ideological.


Child Bride (1938) (aka Child Bride of the Ozarks, Child Brides, or Dust to Dust)
D. Harry Revier

This exploitation 'road-show' shocker was promoted as educational, although its underage nude swimming scene was considered offensive.

The film's exploitational taglines: "A throbbing drama of shackled youth!" and "Where Lust was called Just!" hinted at its 'educational' plot contents designed to circumvent the Production Code restrictions with a story that warned against underage marriage. This independent film was 'road-showed' by legendary roadshowman Kroger Babb, although it was banned in many locations due to its infamous underage nudity.

The film supposedly had a positive purpose: "...if our story will help to abolish Child Marriage - it will have served its purpose." It told about the door-to-door moral crusade of schoolteacher Miss Carol (Diana Durrell) to rid the Ozark rural community of Thunderhead Mountain of hillbillies (especially Warner Richmond as Jake Bolby) courting and marrying underage girls.

The film's most notorious and gratuitous sequence was at the 30 minute mark -- a 4 minute undressing and nude skinny-dip in a pond surrounded with woods by nubile young 12 year-old actress Shirley Mills (not Miles) in her screen debut (as Jennie Colton), accompanied by young friend Freddie Nulty (Bob Bollinger). As she disrobed, she told him not to undress but to stay onshore and be a lookout, and they discussed how their physical differences were beginning to show:

Freddie: "I'll beat you undressed, Jennie."
Jennie: "Freddie, you ain't goin' swimmin' with me no more. So don't you take your clothes off."
Freddie: "Aw, you're teasin'."
Jennie: "No, I'm not. I mean it."
Freddie: "We've always gone in swimmin' together. Why not now?"
Jennie: "Teacher says not to."
Freddie: "Why?"
Jennie: "Well because, because we're not what we used to be."
Freddie: "You mean, we're different. How?"
Jennie: "Naw. We're the same, only you can't see me without my clothes on."
Freddie: "How come? I know how you look without your clothes on. I've seen ya lots of times, haven't I?"
Jennie: "Yes, I know, but now we're grown up and barin'. Teacher says that I shouldn't put bad ideas into your head."
Freddie: "Aw shucks. Now I can't kiss ya no more."
Jennie: "Of course you can, silly. Only with my clothes on."
Freddie: "All right, but I wish that teacher would mind her own business."
Jennie: "Now don't beg."

At the end of her long and playful swim, she was leered at by Jake from a nearby ridge, and an old women startled the voyeuristic Jake by asking: "Pretty, ain't she?" When Freddie noticed, he alerted Jennie and she swam for cover.





The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All-Time
(chronologically, by film title)
Intro | Silents-1930s | 1940s-1950s | 1960-1961 | 1962-1967 | 1968-1969
1970-1971 | 1972 | 1973-1974 | 1975 | 1976-1977 | 1978 | 1979
1980-1982 | 1983-1986 | 1987-1989 | 1990-1992 | 1993-1995 | 1996-1999
2000-2002 | 2003-2005 | 2006-Present


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